Monday, 31 December 2012

Ten Worst Films Of 2012

I don’t necessarily enjoy highlighting the bad stuff. I do like to give every film a chance, in spite of possible preconceptions. As such, I try to see as much as possible of what’s released and as a consequence I inevitably end up watching films that aren’t very good.

These rank as the worst films I saw in 2012 through either paucity of ambition, cynical laziness or just plain misjudgement of themes and execution. The list includes feature films that received a UK general release between January 1st and December 31st 2012, on any format, but doesn’t include festival-only showings.

It also includes the 11-20 spots, for context:

20. Where Do We Go Now? (dir: Nadine Labaki)
19. What To Expect When You’re Expecting (dir: Kirk Jones)
18. Offender (dir: Ron Scalpello)
17. Jack And Jill (dir: Dennis Dugan)
16. Lovely Molly (dir: Eduardo Sánchez)
15. To Rome With Love (dir: Woody Allen)
14. Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax (dirs: Kyle Balda, Chris Renaud)
13. The Wedding Video (dir: Nigel Cole)
12. 360 (dir: Fernando Meirelles)
11. The Devil Inside (dir: William Brent Bell)

10. W.E. (dir: Madonna)

There’s arguably the scope for one interesting story here. There’s certainly not room for the offensive modern-day tale weaved throughout this.

9. Piranha 3DD (dir: John Gulager)

It’s not meant to be serious but that doesn’t mean it needs to be this bad. Woefully unfunny and over-reliant on a misfiring star cameo. Makes the first installment look like Jaws.

8. Nativity 2: Danger In The Manger! (dir: Debbie Isitt)

Cynical, with a suffocating improvvy script and reliance on thinking children 'acting naturally' is grounds enough to neglect just how chronic every element of it is.

7. A Few Best Men (dir: Stephan Elliott)

Filled with the very worst elements of farce and uniformly grim performances from a cast playing a coterie of laddish pricks and female characters who are either insipid or punchlines.

6. This Means War (dir: McG)

A charmless, sloppily edited mess that takes a weak joke and stretches it to breaking point, further proving action and romcoms rarely mix. It's a love story where all parties concerned are thoroughly unlikeable and completely dishonest with each other throughout.

5. Project X (dir: Nima Nourizadeh)

Absolutely deplorable, mindless found footage comedy which takes a scene which might pad out a flabby midsection of another teen comedy and stretches it to feature length – with added casual homophobia, disablism and misogyny.

4. Love Bite (dir: Andy De Emmony)

An abysmal, cynical stab at marrying a comedy-horror model with a queasily obvious attempt to ape the success of The Inbetweeners. Fails on all counts, making you look back on the golden era of Horne and Corden's Lesbian Vampire Killers with a warm glow of fond nostalgia.

3. Irvine Welsh’s Ecstasy (dir: Rob Heydon)

An abominable druggy drama with an awful script and even worse performances. The riffing on Trainspotting is so broad that at times it borders on parody - only minus any of the wit, charm or flair of its progenitor. The Scottish accents on display make Mike Myers sound born-and-bred.

2. Tim And Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie (dirs: Tim Heidecker, Eric Wareheim)

It attempts to break down the mystery of comedy and deconstruct the film through dry examinations of jokes and parodies of movie tropes but they fall completely flat at every turn. Not clever enough to succeed as a satire or outrageous enough to succeed in the gross out stakes, it is one thing to parody awful movies but that doesn’t make it exempt from being an awful movie itself.

1. Keith Lemon: The Film (dir: Paul Angunawela)

An ITV2 vision of cinema.

Top Ten Films Of 2012

This list represents the best new films I saw throughout the year and includes feature films that received a UK general release between January 1st and December 31st 2012, on any format, but doesn’t include festival-only showings.

It also includes the 11-20 spots, for context:

20. The Hunter (dir: Daniel Nettheim)
19. Skyfall (dir: Sam Mendes)
18. War Horse (dir: Steven Spielberg)
17. Life Of Pi (dir: Ang Lee)
16. Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present (dir: Matthew Akers)
15. Moonrise Kingdom (dir: Wes Anderson)
14. A Royal Affair (dir: Nikolaj Arcel)
13. Martha Marcy May Marlene (dir: Sean Durkin)
12. Jeff, Who Lives At Home (dirs: Jay Duplass, Mark Duplass)
11. 21 Jump Street (dirs: Phil Lord, Chris Miller)

The Dark Knight Rises (dir: Christopher Nolan)

Christopher Nolan rounds off one of the greatest blockbuster trilogies of our time with a film that’s grander in scope than either of the previous entries. It’s a rousing finale that provides resolution to every aspect of the series with epic finality. Tom Hardy’s Bane belies his lesser status in the canon of Batman villains with unexpected eloquence and baffling vocal gymnastics while Anne Hathaway remodels Catwoman as a technologically advanced noir femme fatale. Christian Bale imbues the eight-years-older Bruce Wayne with a sense of emotional and physical damage that’s rarely seen in this genre. More often than not it’s when Wayne is onscreen, rather than Batman, that the most profound moments play out. It’s not entirely cohesive but the spirit is there and Nolan’s anchoring of potentially silly aspects in a heightened form of reality is satisfyingly handled.

The Imposter (dir: Bart Layton)

This documentary with the qualities of a whodunnit skilfully weaves a tale of true-life intrigue with genuine cinematic flair. It tells the most fantastically preposterous story of identity theft - if only it weren’t for the fact it all actually happened. As revelation is heaped upon revelation it twists and turns, leaving your heart pounding and breathing shallow. Frédéric Bourdin’s recounting of events makes for chillingly compelling viewing and forms an equally fascinating psychological study that’s never overplayed in the narrative. There’s artistry in the way the film has been assembled with such precision in its balance of reconstructions, talking heads and archive footage. Director Bart Layton offers the opportunity to question the sources and accuracy of the words and story as they are presented on screen and ultimately leaves you to form your own conclusions.

Dredd (dir: Pete Travis)

Dredd’s strongest suit comes as a result of its limitations. With a low budget, in relative terms, for a comic book movie it takes an approach which doesn’t see it make a hash of doing grand scale on-the-cheap, but instead limits the action to one superbly realised location. That allows the film to focus on creating richer characters with a truer sense of purpose. It features not only two genre-defying, well rounded female characters in rookie Judge Anderson and the villain, Ma-Ma, but also allows for some nuance in the Judge Dredd character himself. Mega-City One is given a grounded aesthetic and a visually revolutionary use of slow motion imagery which has rarely looked as good, or made as much sense, as it does here. With a lean running time that fits its story perfectly it is brutal, confident and streamlined.

About Elly... (dir: Asghar Farhadi)

What begins relatively sedately, following a group of Iranian friends visiting a remote villa, gradually shifts to something more uneasy as the eponymous Elly disappears. Simmering tensions and questions of honour are brought to the surface. It never comes to a head in the way that might be expected but the power of the film comes from the sense of dread created through characterisation alone. As blame is apportioned and human frailty is exposed, the ratcheting tension is palpable. The dynamics between the different couples which make up the party are enthralling. It has more to say about domestic life in Iran than it does about the missing person and so while not a thriller in a traditional sense, it has enough textured elements to make it thrilling. Emotionally mature and occasionally agonising, it's a work of quiet tragedy that rarely sets a foot wrong.

Magic Mike (dir: Steven Soderbergh)

Among the chiselled abs, glistening buns and thrusting phalluses there's a fantastic central performance from Channing Tatum that manages to convey the internal struggle of reconciling his career as a stripper against his artistic ambition. The sense of a look behind the scenes at an interesting industry works well. In that respect it is most reminiscent of The Wrestler and the backroom scenes of oiled-up badinage are a lot of fun. It manages to be both moving and funny when required and individual performances have a naturalism that includes fluffed lines and awkward silences. Alongside Tatum’s central role, Matthew McConaughey is particularly impressive as the club frontman. There's a real sense of location both interior and exterior and it’s a sodium yellow joy to look at, with some fascinatingly structured shots. The choreography is great and, regardless of your views on male nudity, captivatingly handled. It’s an excellent character piece from Steven Soderbergh that sits alongside, and completely outclasses, his thematically similar The Girlfriend Experience.

Barbara (dir: Christian Petzold)

Set in East Germany in 1980, it beguiles as it unravels with emotion conveyed through unspoken interactions rather than overtly dramatic exchanges. Intrigue and untold stories lie at the heart of this tale and it mesmerises and captivates with every frame. Barbara is a character at odds with her surroundings; a flash of sultry glamour among the drab surroundings of the rural GDR, where she’s been forcefully relocated. The entire atmosphere of the film, from windswept landscape to costume, is so precisely handled that every element feels like a piece of Barbara’s psyche, adding to her outsider status. While dealing with a political situation it’s not a political film as much as it is a human story about an individual and her own inner turmoil. At its heart it’s a relationship drama where the air is thick with mistrust. Nina Hoss gives a central performance which is a wonder of silent intensity culminating in a quietly devastating final scene.

The Kid With A Bike (dirs: Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne)

Featuring one of the finest ever performances by a child actor, the Dardennes paint a picture of the underclass of Belgian society with an air of grim authenticity and eminent humanity. They place the perspective of the film with that of the kid of the title, Cyril (Thomas Doret), who is a mess of emotions, not least of which is stoicism in the face of abandonment by his father. Cécile de France gives an equally impressive performance as the hairdresser who takes him under her wing at the expense of her own comfort and struggles to adapt to his problematic behaviour. It never quite plays out in expected ways and doesn’t offer easy solutions to societal problems. The characters might not always be likeable but they’re never less than fully formed human beings. Functioning as both a hard-edged social realist drama and verging on pulse-quickening thriller at times, the sense of balance it maintains is masterful. Uplifting without being saccharine and with enough sociological bite to keep it focused.

The Avengers (dir: Joss Whedon)

The Avengers is quite simply a heroic feat that pulls together the disparate elements of four other franchises and fashions them into a coherent, delirious whole. Not only does it work in its own right but it serves as an excellent punctuation point and umbrella third act for each film that lead up to it. It gets as close as cinema has come to capturing the spirit of comic books on the big screen. Every character is given a moment to shine so no one part feels bigger than the ensemble. Joss Whedon’s script is smart enough to know exactly what elements are required to make a film as ridiculous as this fly and that characterisation is the most important of the lot. No concessions are made to grounding this in reality as to do that would be unnecessary padding in this universe. In spite of the film’s greatest successes occurring in the dialogue scenes it doesn’t forget that spectacle counts. The maxim ‘the bigger the better’ is clearly at the forefront and the visually stunning tour de force finale exemplifies that completely.

The Master (dir: Paul Thomas Anderson)

More demanding than any of his previous films and certainly more discordant, Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master is Hollywood filmmaking which takes delight in confounding. This is not a film which concerns itself with grandiose character arcs so much as it prefers to linger on the shifting sands of the relationship and power struggle between not only Joaquin Phoenix’s Freddie Quell and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd, but also Amy Adams as Dodd’s wife, Peggy. The question of the nascent religion which the film is centred around is only a defining factor inasmuch as it raises the question of just how key the positions of master and follower are in these characters’ lives. There is a real sense of development in the characters and they feel lived-in. Quell is petulant and infuriating but there’s a depth to him that cements this as a frankly remarkable performance from Phoenix. From the avant-garde editing and stunning cinematography from Mihai Malaimare Jr to Jonny Greenwood’s dissonant score, it’s a visual and aural joy. It’s a rich, heady mix which simultaneously invigorates and numbs the senses, exuding a sense of otherness in every frame and requiring that you invest in the world and its minutiae.

Young Adult (dir: Jason Reitman)

As bland as the film’s hook sounds this pitch black comedy about facing up to your past and whether it should, or could, be recaptured is a dark delight with a smart script from Diablo Cody. Charlize Theron plays Mavis Gary, an author of young adult fiction who returns to her hometown not as local hero but just another relic of the past for people whose lives have moved on. It’s that dynamic that makes her mission to rekindle a relationship with her high school sweetheart all the more depressingly tasteless. It's in the Grosse Pointe Blank vein but it doesn't ask us to accept that she’s seeking redemption of some sort. It's an exposé of just how venal and shallow people can be and that no matter how much water passes under the bridge, people rarely change. At its core is a refreshingly brave performance from Theron who's not afraid of looking unflattering and playing an emotionally ugly character. Its beauty hinges on the fact it’s a psychological drama masquerading as comedy. From the subtlety of Cody’s characterisation of Mavis (not least in the things left unsaid like her owning one dog named Dolce), it’s a career best from both her and director Jason Reitman. At an absolutely lean 95 minutes of thoroughly unrepentant behaviour it pitches everything perfectly, right down to the unexpected, but thoroughly fitting, ending.

Monday, 24 December 2012


A loose cannon. A firebrand. A maverick, if you will. That’s how the character of Jack Reacher might have been described in the past. That said he’s still described in similarly hoary terms in this film; as the eponymous character himself puts it, he’s a “drifter with nothing to lose”. He certainly doesn’t play by the rules, or the law. He has no fixed home and moves from town to town wherever he’s needed.

It begins with a near silent ten minute opening as we watch a sniper coldly dispatch civilians. As an audience we’re positioned as the shooter and it makes for an uncomfortable watch. We see his point of view through his telescopic sight and the only sounds to accompany it are his measured breaths and isolated cracks of gunfire.

A potted history of Jack Reacher (Tom Cruise) reveals he’s a former military policeman who lives off-grid without any documentation or means of contact. He is called for by the supposed perpetrator and hooks up with his defence attorney Helen Rodin (Rosamund Pike) to investigate the situation surrounding the shooting, much to the chagrin of Helen’s father and local DA (Richard Jenkins) and dogged cop, Emerson (David Oyelowo).

Based on the ninth novel in Lee Child’s series of phenomenally successful Jack Reacher thrillers and adapted and directed by Christopher McQuarrie, best known for writing The Usual Suspects, the film has some pedigree behind it. Fans of the novels might be forgiven for doubting the casting of Cruise as a character known for being a man mountain but his hard-bitten performance, coupled with no mean amount of low-angle shots, gives him the presence required if not the stature.

Considering the hot button topic of gun control at the film’s core and the serious investigative elements that drive the plot, there’s still a place for blasts of humour – though some of it works better than others. While Cruise’s witty put downs to local hoods come with the twinkly charm we would expect from such a polished Hollywood presence, other moments offer a jarring change of tone just when things are getting going. It’s undeniably funny but there’s no rhyme or reason behind featuring a three-way fight scene with choreography that wouldn’t look out of place in a Three Stooges short. It sticks out like an appendage with an anvil-based injury among all the muscular, calculated set pieces of the rest of the film.

The film’s comedic ace comes in the inclusion of Robert Duvall as Cash, a rifle range owner who becomes the focus of part of the investigation. His presence paves the way for a double act of sorts with Cruise. Duvall’s no-nonsense, grizzled charm and laid back approach is the perfect foil for Cruise’s always-thinking Reacher.

The arrival of film director Werner Herzog playing the film’s chief villain, The Zec, marks a distinct uptick. He gives an icy performance as the milky-eyed mastermind but as soon as you hear that mellifluous Teutonic lilt it’s difficult not to bring to mind the weight of Herzog’s own personality, which does slightly overshadow the role. He’s given an opening monologue involving a Siberian prison and a “dead man’s coat” which certainly has all the hallmarks of one of his own voiceovers. His unflinching granite countenance makes a memorable impact each time he appears on screen but the real problem is that there’s just not enough of him.

Reacher aside, most of the characters are given short shrift. There isn't often a clarity to their motivations and many, particularly Pike's, are given little in the way of development. As if it weren't already clear from the above-title opening credits, where it declares this is 'A Tom Cruise Production' and stars Tom Cruise, by the end you are in no doubt this is unreservedly Tom Cruise's film.

While Reacher displays the unstoppable tendencies of a master tactician for most of the duration, it’s a welcome change when it comes to a bone-rattling car chase where he’s refreshingly rubbish; constantly clipping other vehicles and pinballing off sidings. It gives him a human side and shows he’s skilled but not prone to perfection. The rest of the action has the cool distance of being relatively long range and doesn’t feel a million miles away from watching someone play a first-person shooter game like Call of Duty or Medal of Honor. It lacks immediacy and, as a result, often feels anticlimactic.

As a throwback to the crime thrillers of a bygone era it's a success but it suffers slightly from being just too long. It’s some time before it really gets going and even by the end it’s not entirely clear just how some elements fit together. McQuarrie has a streamlined narrative in place but with the added burden of having to introduce Reacher for a presumed future franchise it buckles slightly under the pressure. Fewer characters – particularly of the disposable variety – and the removal of clearly telegraphed character shifts would have made for a tighter, tenser ride.

It’s a film of two halves and invariably the quieter dialogue scenes work far better than the protracted forays into action. There’s plenty mileage in Reacher as a character, even though it isn’t fully explored here, but the fact he isn’t motivated by financial gain, or just in the wrong place at the wrong time, makes him interesting in the canon of big screen heroes. While inevitable elements of the White Knight trope creep in, there is darkness to him rarely witnessed in his contemporaries.


Thursday, 6 December 2012


Where to start with Seven Psychopaths? It’s so scrappy and sprawling that it is hard to quite get a handle on. Employing meta techniques it’s ostensibly the tale of struggling scriptwriter, Marty (Colin Farrell), trying to flesh out a screenplay he’s writing called Seven Psychopaths. It’s also a caper about a bungled dog kidnapping with which Marty is tangentially involved through Billy (Sam Rockwell) and Hans (Christopher Walken). Things get confusing when the writing and ‘real’ life get intertwined and urban legends reveal their roots in reality. All the while, characters pass comment on how the film-within-a-film, as well the one we’re watching, should play out.

Director Martin McDonagh’s last film, In Bruges, was a resounding success; managing to be scurrilously entertaining with endless ribaldry and enough heart to make sensitive leads of a couple of hitmen on the run in unfamiliar territory. On paper Seven Psychopaths looked to be playing to McDonagh’s strengths with another tale of gangsters and Colin Farrell playing someone lovably out of his depth.

On a dialogue level, it’s very funny indeed. Farrell plays against type as a pacifist boozehound who prefers to be sidelined. The badinage between him and Rockwell’s motormouthed showboater is the spark that keeps the film alight under the weight of the smothering postmodernism. That’s not to say Rockwell isn’t also intensely irritating; given to shouting at random and wearing silly animal hats. Thank heavens for the calming presence of Christopher Walken whose typically languid delivery cuts through every scene he’s in, elevating it with just the intensity burning in his eyes and the size of his hair.

It’s when listing the performances that you might notice no mention of any women. It’s not that there aren’t any, although that might as well be the case. While the characters point out the short shrift that women receive in film in general, this is carried over into this film. The only female characters are shrewish (Abbie Cornish), sex objects (Olga Kurylenko) or the butt of a joke (Gabourey Sidibe). One female character gets a brief moment to shine as Hans’ wife, Myra (Linda Bright Clay), has a tense standoff with Woody Harrelson’s Mafioso villain Charlie Costello but as a result of the script playing so fast and loose with relevance, even the impact of that is lost and quietly forgotten. Comically referencing poor treatment of women in offhand fashion isn’t enough to make us forget it’s happening here.

Fortunately it never slows to a pace where you’re afforded the time to think about the myriad problems it has on a structural level. It survives scene to scene if you can take them in relative seclusion and enjoy the dynamics of it. By attempting to piece it all together, that’s where it begins to fray at the edges. A barrage of cameos including Michaels, Pitt and Stuhlbarg, keeps things breezy but the appearance of Tom Waits proves one of the highlights when he appears as a rabbit-carrying consulting psycho whose back-story provides the film’s crowning glory.

These parts of the film are astonishing in just how well directed they are. There are flashes of the sparkling brilliance McDonagh displayed with In Bruges but they are fleeting and oddly at cross purposes with their intention. It’s a cruel irony that the cutaway scenes, such as Waits’ tale, which are used to take the piss out of the quality of the script being written, are so well handled and genuinely captivating that they make you wish they were the film you were actually watching.

It has a vibe oh-so reminiscent of any number of late-Nineties, post-Tarantino indie movies that often dealt with a heist gone wrong or Hollywood satire, but with a post-Adaptation sensibility. Both are strong reference points which, in theory, should sit nicely together but the juxtaposition proves that they work far better in isolation.

There’s enough fine work in the dialogue to allow a degree of forgiveness for some of the meta baggage the film is saddled with. While the interconnected tissues of some of the sinuous elements are stitched together by a steady hand, there’s the distinct feeling as it plays out that other ruptures are bleeding away under the surface. As you’re watching it becomes aware it can only hold for so long and will take some spectacular field surgery in the last act to save it.

One of the key themes throughout the film is how it should end. Billy is convinced it should end in a spectacular gung-ho bloodbath. That kind of unifying display might just have pulled all the elements together – it certainly needed something big and assured - but there’s the feeling by the end that Billy might have been disappointed with the outcome.


Wednesday, 5 December 2012


Anna Kendrick, in her first leading role, is Beca; a retiring alternative type. We know this because she has Daddy issues and she's into DJing. She feels completely at ease dropping knowledge of David Guetta into a conversation and produces mashups, such as the Proclaimers one she drops early on to clue the audience into her cred.

She reluctantly joins the Bellas, one of her new college's four a cappella singing groups (including one populated by, unbelievably, a group of stoners), because apparently these students haven't heard of partying or studying. We don't even find out what any of the characters are actually studying or see them attend a class throughout the entire duration of the film. Instead there’s a regional singing competition as the familiar hook the film’s structure is hung upon.

In what seems like a taken-as-read romantic subplot rather than any kind of natural character development, Beca becomes suddenly entangled with Jesse (Skylar Astin) from a rival a cappella team with whom we see little semblance of any kind of romantic ritual develop. It just happens because we're expected to expect it to. He's another sensitive soul and we know this because he can list his favourite film scores to clue the audience into his cred. He’s the type of dreamer who doesn't mind showing a potential amour the last two minutes of The Breakfast Club, rather than the entire film, to woo her.

The film unfolds in typically predictable fashion but that’s alright because they ironically acknowledge this predictability in the dialogue. Tensions arise within the singing group and a battle for dominance takes place among the ragtag bunch of girls who are hilariously fat/psycho/lesbian/prissy/slutty. The musical numbers which pepper the film are a welcome diversion from the stuttering plot dynamics and themes of acceptance which it tries hard to point out aren’t like Glee, while being exactly like Glee.

Puns on a cappella are grating at first when used earnestly but become head-punchingly annoying when they’re later used frequently and ironically. Non sequiturs and funny voices are threaded throughout in place of anything truly remarkable. When hitting a comedic dry spot, a pratfall or grope will paper over any cracks and if running really low, unnecessary cameos from Elizabeth Banks (who also serves as producer), Har Mar Superstar and Christopher Mintz-Plasse will momentarily divert your attention.

Rebel Wilson as another member of the Bellas gets most of heavy lifting to do when it comes to the comedy. She’s a talented comic actress but she’s not allowed to display anything beyond the unhinged act she’s displayed in all her most recent films. It’s an irony that her character adopts the moniker ‘Fat Amy’ to undercut the jibe being used against her by others when it’s the same trick she’s being forced to use as an actress; play the one-note, big kooky girl who embraces her image in everything and continue to get cast in supporting roles. It’s a shame because she’s clearly capable of more.

It’s no surprise that Wilson was also in Bridesmaids because that’s exactly what they’re pitching at here. It’s a female-led comedy that deals with relationships between women but there’s not an ounce of the nuance shown there. Most pleasingly it doesn’t resort to having an out-and-out bitch character – at least not among the girls – but there is a misjudged running gag about bodily functions that seeks to rival Bridesmaids in the gross out stakes. It wants to be raunchy but even that is dialled down. The most you’ll get is a few “bitches” and a performance of Rihanna’s S&M.

In a film that seems to place prominence on accepting people for who they are, there’s a strangely distasteful thread of meanness towards Asian women which crops up in two distinct circumstances. Firstly, Beca’s inexplicably cold and aggressive roommate who is only afforded one cursory off-screen moment to break stereotype and, secondly, a spooky member of the Bellas who speaks in hushed whispers and betrays a dark past of arson and a “dead body”.

It has all the hallmarks of a post-Mean Girls teen flick with bite but it’s lacking in a sense of identity. It’s never quite sure exactly whether it wants to be a satirical exploration of teen movie tropes in that vein, a celebration of harmony of both voice and disparate personalities coming together or something more dramatic as expressed in the way which it attempts to deal with Beca’s sense of isolation. It tries to be all but never comes close to pulling it off.

The characters just don’t connect. There’s nothing to root for in the romantic subplot and the entire cast of characters, aside from Beca, are so underdeveloped beyond a signifying quirk that they can’t hold your interest. While there is a joy to watching impressive vocal stylings among the various groups, the rest of it is the equivalent of watching the other bits of The X Factor.

Far from perfect.


Friday, 16 November 2012


Following up There Will Be Blood was always going to prove troublesome for Paul Thomas Anderson in light of his varied career of works tackling broad scopes of numerous eras and genres. After the relatively epic sweep of his epic oil drama, it was a bold move not to dial it down and dilute the style he developed therein. The Master not only picks up many of the same themes but fashions them into something even more discordant and demanding.

A little before the end of the first act, Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is awoken by a stranger to be told, “You’re at sea”. The person delivering that message in the literal sense is possibly only partly aware of how apt that phrase is for Freddie is indeed a man adrift. He’s a lost soul scrambling from job to job and misdemeanour to misdemeanour after serving his country in the South Pacific in World War II. Unable to settle down, he’s lead by the nose in search of hedonistic excess and fuelled by any intoxicant he can lay his hands upon – as a spell drinking developing fluid during his job as a department store photographer exemplifies.

It’s when his path converges with that of a nascent spiritual organisation led by the enigmatic Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) that the gears of a direct plot begin their slow grind into the position they’ll occupy for much of the film. This is not a film which concerns itself with grandiose character arcs; more concerned as it with the eventual power play between the antagonist and protagonist.

As Dodd attempts to diagnose and ‘fix’ Freddie through the processing stages of his religion there’s a curious dynamic at play. Warm with an undercurrent of genial malice, Dodd seems enamoured of his new ward in spite of his “scoundrel” tendencies and it’s the formation of a symbiotic relationship that forms the backbone of the film. The strength of it lies in the subtly shifting balance of power to the point where you’re never quite sure who's benefitting more from Freddie’s betterment. Is his turnaround the redemptive makeover an audience is presumed to root for, or vindication of a possibly on-the-hoof doctrine?

Powerful scenes raise questions about this fledgling religion but the mooted Scientology skewering is merely a jumping off point for an examination of the relationship between these two outwardly different, but similarly in turmoil, men. It’s in these intricacies that the joy of the film lies. There’s no such thing as an easy answer or an easy question.

In discussing humanity’s need to always have something to follow it doesn’t shy from tackling the theme of religion head on but it does so not from an embittered standpoint, but from one of genuine inquisitional interest and a desire to probe human nature. It’s neatly summed up in typically impressive form by Dodd, who calmly goads: “If you figure out a way to live without a master, any master, be sure to let the rest of us know for you would be the first in the history of the world.”

There is a real sense of development in the characters throughout the film and, evidently, long before shooting started. They feel lived-in and there is the sense that both Hoffman and Phoenix know them inside and out. It’s tempting to think that Phoenix’s entire experience with I’m Still Here was a tentative fumbling towards his petulant and infuriating character here. It’s certainly an astounding performance that will define his career from now on. The interplay between the two leads sparkles with latent energy and in some respects their relationship has more in common with Apatowian bromance than it does with even previous Anderson films.

While on screen for little of the film’s engorged 144 minute running time, Amy Adams' powerful performance as Dodd’s wife is impactful in every scene and is potentially key to unlocking the relationship between the men. She’s quietly dazzling and worlds removed from her stock in trade sweetness we’ve grown accustomed to.

It’s certainly a handsome production. The captivating cinematography of Mihai Malaimare Jr captures an essence of the 1950s period aesthetic and punctuates the film with the most stunning shots of azure seas. Coupled with an avant-garde use of editing techniques and dissonant score from Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, it’s as much of a joy visually as is it for those who enjoy grappling with the complexities of a story which thrives on individual scenes as much as it does their part in a whole.

Careful balance is integral and it importantly doesn’t outstay its welcome. As a portrait of Phoenix’s character it exudes a sense of otherness in every frame. He never quite looks part of this world and there’s an overpowering sense of being lost in his surroundings. The fact you’re unlikely to grow fond of him doesn’t make that any less touching and it’s the quiet warmth afforded his character that makes this so extraordinary and devastating. Some men just can’t be tamed.

While all this might sound well beyond po-faced and deep into the realms of drudgery, there’s room within for exploration of a sweeter nature with a probing of potential tenderness in Quell’s past, but even that isn’t quite clear cut in a narrative sense. Humour flares in unexpected places (particularly an exemplary use of a well-timed cussword) and ensures that the dynamics of a scene are liable to uproot you at any moment.

It’s a rich, heady mix which simultaneously invigorates and numbs the senses like a paint thinner cocktail. It constantly requires more of its audience and the more you devote to it and invest in the world and the minutiae, the more you’re likely to reap from it. It doesn't have the immediacy of There Will Be Blood or the instantly accessible qualities of Boogie Nights or Magnolia but it lights up the screen and it’s destined to leave you stewing afterwards. Whether your reaction to that is positive or negative, it’s invigorating and there won’t be any denying that impact was achieved.

Friday, 5 October 2012

Review: TAKEN 2

Unlike many action film sequels, Taken 2’s strongest card is that it isn’t a case of, “How can the same shit happen to the same guy twice?” Bryan Mills’ (Liam Neeson) role in this is comes as a direct result of his jaunt to Paris in 2008 and more specifically as a result of the disposable goons he mercilessly killed in order to save his daughter. Turns out said goons had powerful families who now seek to avenge their deaths.
That’s not to say there isn’t a degree of contrivance involved in bringing all parties together in another foreign city. Moving from Paris to Istanbul this time, it mildly subverts expectations by making Mills’ daughter Kim (Maggie Grace) less of a victim and more instrumental this time around, all the while managing to crowbar in scenes reminiscent of the most popular from the original.
So we get the phonecall as he calmly talks his daughter through the situation. We get the threats to his assailants as he delivers his intention to kill them. We get the storming of dilapidated residences filled with leather jacketed heavies. It does seem forced but it makes sense he’d employ similar tactics. These are aspects of his character and his methods in the same way that John McClane might crack wise after a fumbled dispatch or John Rambo might grunt while stealthily slitting someone’s throat.

It’s easy to forget that his role in Taken was the one that reinvented Liam Neeson to an extent. For an audience used to seeing him in dramas or as noble mentors, it was a genuine shock to see him coldly rampaging across Paris. By nature of its sequel status we don’t have that same luxury here. We know exactly what Mills can do and so all the film can do is try to top what we’ve already seen by raising the stakes.
By bringing along his estranged wife Lenore (Famke Janssen) and having her in peril, it adds another layer. Her character doesn’t add much but the effect her inclusion has is efficient. Rather than wading into the situation with literal guns blazing as he did last time, the impetus here is getting out of it and rueing his involvement in the first place.
The film’s biggest problem lies in the handling of the action scenes. In chasing a younger demographic the fight scenes have lost any sense of weight. The brutality is replaced by a series of incomprehensible fight scenes and logical leaps that render them near-worthless. The sound mix is so softened and the edits are so rapid that all you see are flailing limbs and aftermath with bone-snapping cracks replaced by light whumps that sound like pillows landing.
All of the visceral no-nonsense joy is sapped. The car chases across crowded Istanbul bazaars and narrow streets fare better but even those feel dampened by the fact that they’re a staple of the genre. Rade Sherbedgia’s chief villain is deftly handled in spite of awkwardly literal dialogue but for a film which focuses on the personalisation of the villains as a key plot point, each of the rest of them are nonentities only there to wave guns and serve as convenient action beats.
Like the first, the scenes of Mills in normality are faintly laughable with echoes of his daughter’s embarrassingly false teeny pop idol obsession and U2-following Euro tour of yore. An ill advised subplot about Kim’s first boyfriend is played strictly for laughs and veers into parody as Neeson plays protective father for comic effect. Kim’s convenient ambition is now passing a driving test which unsurprisingly comes into play as she uses it as a means to bond with her father in both LA and when at risk.
At more than one point in the film it borrows tracks from the soundtrack to Drive. An odd choice with such a lauded film so fresh in the memory but it has to be assumed that using Chromatics’ Tick Of The Clock in exactly the same context as Nicolas Winding Refn’s film has to be an obvious homage rather than rip off. However it does raise the question of exactly what tone the filmmakers are aiming for.
Softer than the first instalment in themes and action and with unexpected comedic elements weaved throughout, it never quite hits the same highs as the singular Taken. While the plot must be applauded on some level for providing a logical response to previous incidents, it’s a generally satisfying sequel rather than equal.


Tuesday, 2 October 2012


It comes down to more than just this but you know when one small thing in a film causes it to instantly lose you? That.

Set in a Pittsburgh of indeterminate year, the film sets up our teenage misfit protagonists as musos; outsiders whose lives are punctuated by key songs that define moments. They listen to Nick Drake and use obscure songs by The Smiths as tonal shorthand for us to realise how deep they are. They make wilfully clued-in mixtapes and comment about how great it is when Dexys Midnight Runners get played at a lame disco. These kids, these precociously switched-on lyrical brats, hear Heroes by David Bowie on a magical car journey and none of them know what it is.
Is their non-recognition them being achingly hip and oh-so arch? Acknowledging the fact that it’s among the best known songs by an instantly recognisable artist and scoffing at how pointedly it underscores their position? They must know the song, right? Nope. Turns out they don't and it becomes a poignant plot point that they uncover the obscure recording artist behind this little heard track.
It might seem like a small point but it encapsulates the problems of the film. It’s so focused on what looks or sounds cool within a scene that it forgets whether or not it distracts from what matters.
So long is spent on establishing the outsider status of our heroes that they make up for in affectations what they lose in characterisation. You've got Ezra Miller's acid-tongued, gay Patrick (who expresses his sexuality through on-stage, dragged up sing-alongs of The Rocky Horror Picture Show); Emma Watson's surface level, seemingly together Sam who is actually a whole mess of turbulence underneath; and central character Charlie, played by Logan Lerman, who we're informed has a history of tragedy in both his family and social life and has previously suffered a breakdown.
It’s a potent mix for a film with this demographic and Miller and Lerman’s performances are particularly good. A supporting cast, which includes Paul Rudd as a warmly influential teacher and Pittsburgh local hero Tom Savini, help scatter the film with individual charming scenes but never really help coax it onwards. Ultimately the teenage dilemmas which drive the film lack sufficient exploration beyond soap opera arcs and Emma Watson is distractingly miscast. Never able to convince that her character has an ounce of the history she professes, she serves little dramatic purpose beyond romantic foil for Charlie.
When the plot seems torn between whether it’s a romantic drama or psychological study of repressed memories, each tender melodrama is an unwelcome interlude. Both strands work well in isolation but rarely form a workable symbiosis.
It's in the age difference of three years between Charlie and his cohorts that shades of This Is England start to appear. It's not overt but there’s almost the sense of an Americanised retelling; this youngster who starts to find his identity through hanging out with older peers and discovers a sense of belonging through the world of music, literature and drugs they introduce him to. It never strays into the same darker areas as This Is England but it’s riddled with many of the same touch points – even down to our hero’s relationship with the weird, shaven-headed older girl.
It’s undoubtedly affecting at times in spite of its multiple flaws and while attacking the themes with an occasional dearth of finesse, there is some profundity in there. As Patrick states in one scene, his life is like an “afterschool special”. It’s fine to acknowledge that but it doesn’t excuse the fact that the film has been written in such a way.
Having harped on about the use of music in the film it seems churlish to point out that the jukebox soundtrack is actually very good and the song selection perfectly balances out the slightly wistful cinematography.
We open with a countdown and the film ends accordingly; time has passed and lives have changed but the rigidity of that time period make those life changing events appear glossed over in pursuit of a framework. When so much time is devoted to letting us know just how much our heroes stand out from the crowd, it’s just not clear exactly what the perks of being a wallflower are.

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Review: ABOUT ELLY...

Simmering tensions and questions of honour enshroud a group of Iranian friends and their young families as they visit a villa by the sea. The eponymous Elly (Taraneh Alidoosti), one of the children’s teachers and friend of central female figure Sepideh (Golshifteh Farahani), is invited along with the group as a potential suitor for one of their number but things fall apart when she disappears during a flurry of potentially fatal activity.
What begins relatively sedately gradually shifts to something more uneasy. Suspense is ratcheted up little by little as more revelations about the missing woman, and her acquaintances, come to light. By the time of the third act it is heart in mouth stuff. The sense of unease created through characterisation alone is palpable.
Accusation and apportioning of blame is the focus of much of what transpires but, as all that is happening, human frailty is exposed. It never explodes in the way that you might expect. Guilt manifests in various guises with each character choosing to cope in a different way. The ensemble seems all-encompassing while never seeming artificially forced together to satisfy a need for different types.
While not a thriller in a traditional sense, it has enough of those elements to make it thrilling. It has more to say about domestic life in Iran than it does the story of a missing person. Featuring some of the cast from Asghar Farhadi's later work, A Separation, the performances are all pitched at exactly the right balance of natural and heightened.
The dynamics between the different couples which make up the party are fascinatingly rendered. The interplay among, and between, couples can swivel at a moment’s notice. Where you might expect the female characters to languish among such strong male interaction, their characters are forcefully well realised. No one sex is more culpable than another when it comes to the problems encountered but the gender balance comes into play in enthralling ways.
Farhadi is proving himself a force in world cinema capable of telling intense human stories with a minimum of fuss and scarcely a frame wasted in telling the emotional story behind the events.
Overcast skies and expressionistically colourless vistas aren’t maybe what you’d associate with a Persian landscape but they’re used to great effect here from the moment the film’s pivotal event takes place. The cinematography has a satisfyingly loose style that fits the flux of the action and is ramped up when needed, most notably during an anxious rescue.
It's rich and textured in a completely unhurried way and for those unfamiliar with the inner workings of Iranian society it's a fascinating insight. Emotionally mature and occasionally agonising, it's a work of quiet tragedy that rarely sets a foot wrong.

Sunday, 16 September 2012


The presence of Tim Burton and Henry Selick loom large over this film. While not in an official capacity, the world of horror inflected stop motion animation is their hallowed turf. Anyone seen to be breaching this ground is bound to be labelled a sub-par intruder but the makers of ParaNorman have equalled, if not bettered, those by the sub-genre superstars.
Taking its cues from The Sixth Sense, ParaNorman concerns eleven-year-old shock haired Norman, who can converse with dead people. Cleverly that isn’t seen as a problem though – at least not for him. The problem lies in the eyes of others; from his concerned mother and appalled father to bullying contemporaries at school.
For a film that starts out with a flickery grindhouse homage and the image on a trodden-on brain, it’s no surprise that the film is uncompromising in its content for a film with this demographic, and rightly so (sample joke topics: homosexuality, goosing, tits and ass). It would be untenable and pointless to construct a film – animated or not – around the subject of the risen dead and not pay homage to genre hallmarks.
That’s not to say there isn't a moral backbone to this illicit children’s film. It is warmly nostalgic in its vision of warped Americana and the central tenet of accepting difference in others runs through it like fresh brains through a putrefying intestinal tract. There’s an infectious glee in the way it doesn’t hold back on showing gruesome sights, such as a corpse’s lolling tongue flapping onto our hero’s face.
The character design is positively grotesque – and that’s just in the living. Blotchy skin, puffy eyes, asymmetrical faces, wobbling bingo wings and monstrously protruding guts all feature heavily. The voice cast seem to completely inhabit their parts. Softly spoken Kodi Smit-McPhee is a beguiling lead as Norman, in stark contrast to his flustered parents voiced by Leslie Mann and an exasperated Jeff Garlin. Playing against type, Casey Affleck is completely unrecognisable as a lunk-headed Jock while Anna Kendrick flies in the face of her usually prissy screen persona as Norman’s callow, vapid sister. If anything, the characters are too stock but even that’s in keeping with much of the genre it riffs on.
While obviously dancing in the general area of parody, the film doesn’t stuff itself with references to other films. This is its own thing. It takes time to establish its own world, drawing from sources as varied as gory b-movies and its New England setting's history of puritanical witch trials. The influence of John Carpenter does make itself apparent in the score and a couple of sly nods to Halloween but never to the extent that it seems homage is more important than plot.
What will leave the most lasting impression are the stunning visuals. The model work and stop motion have a tactile charm but in coupling those with fantastically audacious camerawork and liberal application of CGI, it reaches new heights. The autumnal hues and ragged aesthetic give it a lived in feel that completely fits the plot and the characters that inhabit it. A scene of atmospheric turbulence in the skies above the town of Blithe Hollow is mind blowing in how well realised it is.
Of course it’s relatively bloodless and the undead of the film are rarely concerned with anything worse happening to them than losing a dangling limb. Of course when that limb is 300 years old and decaying, it’s all played for comic effect. There’s nothing too troubling – at least no more so than munching on a jelly brain sweet.
Pleasingly plot driven and without the unnecessary baggage that usually accompanies message focused animated films, it’s a flesh creeping delight. It might not have the innocent charm to guarantee its longevity but it’s a delightful, if slight, romp that doesn’t scale back on the visceral pleasure of watching a horror film.

Thursday, 13 September 2012


What happens when an unstoppable force (Meryl Streep’s unbridled optimism) meets an immovable object (Tommy Lee Jones’ craggy scowl)? Well, they go to marriage counselling and seek to repair years of damage to their emotions and libido.
The film’s biggest strength lies in the fact that it’s very much a two-hander. It’s absolutely Streep and Jones’ film and both actors are more than game. It’s solidly structured around these two with only one significant supporting actor in the form of Steve Carell’s therapist. As such it doesn’t feel cluttered and eschews unnecessary comic relief.
It’s relatively gentle humour in spite of broaching the subject of sex matter-of-factly but it plays to the actors’ strengths. The set pieces are fun but never at the expense of characterisation. Jones’ guttural growl when faced with uncomfortable situations is always pleasing and Streep takes charge of the film’s more heightened moments with seemingly effortless panache.
It’s warmly natural, touchingly tender and occasionally very funny. It’s not quite as predictable as you might expect and character expectations are sensitively subverted. The progression feels balanced and fair; it’s not a battle of the sexes. It walks the fine line between schmaltz and melodrama (in the best possible way) while managing a few barbs but doesn’t resort to comedy of embarrassment tropes.
It has a lot to say about relationships and how, without noticing, they drift into monotony and need reassessing – especially as years turn to decades. It might not be breaking new ground but they’re resonant themes and it’s refreshing to see sex approached in a way that isn’t puerile or throwaway.
Unfortunately it’s slightly marred by a jarringly fast wrap up and an ill-suited punchline (that strangely chimes with similar problems in the last act of Take This Waltz) but there’s plenty to admire in the thoughtful restraint of this post-middle age comedy-drama.

Monday, 10 September 2012

Review: DREDD

It looked like 2000 AD’s toughest lawman would never see the big screen again. A string of flop films based on ‘mature content’ comics and a much maligned previous adaptation in 1995 had seemingly put paid to that.
But here it is. It’s uncompromised, it’s adrenalised, and there’s no Stallone in sight. It’s also one of the most visually revolutionary action films of recent years. Establishing the lore of this dystopian future and setting up the grand scale of Mega-City One, before confining the bulk of the action to one location, is a remarkably effective way of allowing for characterisation of Judge Dredd himself.
For the Dredd of Alex Garland and Pete Travis’ vision is not quite the indestructible, gung-ho portrayal that’s attached itself to the character in the past. Karl Urban’s Dredd expresses caution, restraint and faith in other characters. While not shying away from all the action hero stuff you’re watching for, he’s more rounded than could reasonably be expected.
His interaction with rookie Judge Anderson is a sheer joy to behold. The entire treatment of the Anderson character is fascinating. Not only is her character nuanced and well written but they way the filmmakers have handled her powers is impressive. The portrayal of her psychic powers is immaculately realised in a way that makes X-Men’s similar approach look frankly silly.
Anderson is one of two genre-defying well rounded female characters. Lena Headey as the film’s villain, Ma-Ma makes an invigorating change in that her sex is almost incidental. It’s never dwelled upon or used to affect her actions. She’s brutally cold but softly spoken and with a calm demeanour and that’s what makes her scary. A scene recounting her back-story could have been a hackneyed piece of exposition but it’s told with such a visual flair that it never feel like it is.
There’s a grounded feeling to the way that Mega-City One has been developed here. From shot to shot it looks real world (a result of its South African shoot and budget) but in landscape shots it’s fascinatingly structured; relatively ground level slums studded with vertical cities in the form of the blocks. Budget limitations do show elsewhere, not least in Dredd’s Lawmaster bike that looks like a fibreglass bug shield tacked onto the front of someone’s Yamaha.
Where the film really succeeds is in its usage of slow motion. By making slo-mo imagery a side effect of the narcotic of the same name, it becomes not just a stylistic effect but a diegetic device. It thickly coats the imagery in a translucent sheen that’s translates beautifully to the screen. While slow motion isn’t new in action films it has rarely looked as good, or made as much sense, as it does here.
Comparisons with The Raid are inevitable due to the tower block setting and similar plot beats but there’s much more at stake here. While The Raid tied itself up with manufactured twists, Dredd is more concerned with using the location and device of secluding the heroes as a means of world building.
There’s a minor problem in the disposability of many of the villains but that’s cleverly explained away by a lean plot mechanism: they’re not henchmen, they’re ordinarily people cajoled into action. It adds an extra layer and is effectively explored in a scene involving Anderson and a mother whose husband has adopted a role as bounty hunter.
At 95 minutes, it never leaves time to get stale. The block is so well realised as a location that it seems like they could have afforded further time to investigate it. The dark humour of the comics makes an appearance (not least in some spectacularly gruesome deaths) but never feels the need to offer a comedy sidekick to liven things up. With the world now established on screen, seeing other corners of Mega-City One’s sprawling metropolis explored could be an intriguing prospect. As a neo-fascist satire on a grand scale, it’s a fascinating and heady mix.

Friday, 7 September 2012



The latest in a long line of television to movie adaptations is a quintessentially British affair that desperately wants to compete with its American counterparts. It’s glossy and polished in a way that the original series never was and it can’t wait to let you know there’s more to British policing than Bobbies on the beat. While Hot Fuzz has already played with the concept of transposing this iconically American genre to the UK, this certainly isn’t playing for laughs.
It’s played reassuringly, and refreshingly, straight with no room for nudges and winks in this vision of London as a cops and robbers battleground. We’re introduced to the no-nonsense Flying Squad (‘Sweeney Todd’) of the title through a rough ‘n’ tumble conversation about the fitness of birds before we’re launched into watching them rumble a heist. Anyone familiar with director Nick Love’s oeuvre would be getting worried about now. The laddish banter and casual violence are present and correct.
While not quite on a par with the squalidness of his previous efforts, it does set a worrying precedent. Happily, it turns out those preconceptions are mostly ill-founded and Love proves himself to be adept at handling most elements of the film. He shares a writing credit with John Hodge (who adapted Trainspotting to blistering effect) so you would expect the script to shine through. However, it features more “slags” than your average knocking shop and rarely rises beyond parody, which is a problem when the film takes itself so seriously.
The plot is a bit of a slog and anyone who’s ever seen an episode of a primetime cop drama will be miles ahead of this supposedly crack squad when it comes to piecing together the evidence. It makes them look lumbering and merely reinforces the notion that they’re all about brawn and less about brain, which makes it doubly baffling when they seem to be based in the kind of hi-tech, inner city foothold that would make S.H.I.E.L.D. blush.
In many ways it’s akin to a British take on Elite Squad (minus any of that film’s nuance). Aside from the obvious police squad similarities, it’s similar in its politics in that it suggests it takes a bit of fascistic head-knocking to really uphold the law. It’s a glowing exaltation of police brutality, without any attempt to analyse or criticise. Even early themes of police corruption are quietly swept aside and forgotten about. The film is completely in thrall to their machismo; unfalteringly in awe of the methods they employ.
The problem with this is that there’s no outsider character to lead you in and let you experience any of these methods through their eyes. As a viewer, you're very much positioned as one of The Sweeney and, indeed, the only real example of someone outside the circle is painted as an effete, sexless prick from the off.
Ray Winstone plays Jack Regan as Ray Winstone and Ben ‘Plan B’ Drew as George Carter shows that he’s really not much of an actor when not required to look a bit tasty with his fists. Proper nawty geezers and armed bastards make up the bulk of the other characters, with the exceptions of Damian Lewis and Steven Mackintosh as pencil pushers. Hayley Atwell is pleasingly given a role that lets her be just as hard as the men but, unfortunately, that’s balanced out by also making her inexplicably fall into bed (or, rather, a toilet cubicle) with Winstone at every opportunity.
All these problems are well and good but moot points if you can focus on the content of the action instead. Aside from the minor thrill of seeing exciting things happen in iconic locations, the action is a bit of a mess though. A strangely bloodless shootout in Trafalgar Square is shoddily edited and lacking in tension but at least the car chases and punch ups, which made the John Thaw and Dennis Waterman version so iconic, fare better. A high speed chase through a caravan park is exhilarating and the few scenes of mano-a-mano scrapping are crunchingly effective.
"You're nicked" seems an appropriate phrase to echo through the film as it applies to a score that’s often eerily similar to that of The Dark Knight. Meanwhile, the second unit must have struck a deal with Alan Sugar to lease b-roll from The Apprentice as it’s hard not to look at the glossy aerial shots of London without hearing ‘Montagues and Capulets’ playing in your head while Lord Sugar informs you he’s “not looking for arse-kissers”.
And that is a fairly apt description of The Sweeney’s ambitions. It’s not looking for anyone to shower it with plaudits. It just wants to please a post-pub Friday night crowd and show that British film doesn’t have to be genteel. In that respect, it’s a relative success. Job done.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012


Dawn of the Brown Bread.

This is very much an ideas film. The title is at once evocative and playful and, strangely enough, quite intelligent. Pairing East End iconography and stereotypes, which is among the most distinct of any region in the UK, with the well established tropes of zombie iconography is an absolutely sound comic premise.

It cleverly assembles a cast of up and coming young talent like Rasmus Hardiker, Michelle Ryan and Harry Treadaway and places them alongside a good value assortment of senior scene-stealers like Alan Ford, Richard Briers, Dudley Sutton and Honor Blackman. Although the zombie outbreak has been done to death there’s still a lot of mileage in it as a means of getting across an allegorical message.

Unfortunately the reading of the outbreak as a metaphor for the escalating viral gentrification of London’s East End is only touched upon. It’s clear the inhabitants of this filmic East London welcome the regeneration of their beloved stomping ground as much as they do the undead overrunning it. It really is just about the title and all that evokes; tasty geezers, wideboys and brassy matriarchs facing off against the shambling undead masses. Although Shaun of the Dead, with its North London setting, might seem an obvious reference point there’s really very little in common.

There are nice innovations though, like the upfront addressing of the reason for the outbreak. There’s no faffing about in letting us know that zombies were sealed away by Charles II during (presumably) The Great Fire of London and uncovered during development work. This is never dwelt upon, or even fully explained, but that’s what makes it so refreshing.

The film’s biggest problem is a leaden script that tries a bit of everything but rarely succeeds. It starts out using well-timed, if overly familiar, short burst of cutaways as a visual shorthand but they're dropped soon after and don't reappear. Within minutes though, it’s already getting lazy and piling stock character upon stock character. While certainly different, character motivations are dull and underexplored with no real sense of progression.

The film is essentially a series of neat visual gags stitched together as a plot by any means necessary. Some of them work (such as a zimmer frame chase scene) but others are so telegraphed that they come lumbering into view even slower than the zombies.

When it comes to the undead, there’s no attempt made to 'characterise' the zombies. Each one is mere cannon fodder; a gore inflected punchline. You’d be hard pushed at the end to think of a single iconic one in the way you might remember, for example, Mary from Shaun of the Dead or the cemetery zombie from Night of the Living Dead.

The film’s most insurmountable problem is that there’s very little in the way of emotional weight. While the splatter might be what gets people watching, it’s the characters and relationships that keep it memorable and there’s scarce meat on the bones here.

Unarguably visually impressive, with an impressive illustration-encompassing opening, there’s fun to be had in seeing stereotypes vs. stereotypes but there’s trouble and strife in store for anyone looking for something with more bite.


Monday, 3 September 2012

Review: [●REC]3: GÉNESIS

Taking place simultaneously with the events of [REC] and [REC]2, the third instalment has arguably the neatest conceit of the three by combining the same zombie outbreak with a readymade assortment of savages - namely, a wedding party. All walks of life (and, thusly, death) are brought together, from doddery geriatrics to lusty mates and drunken bridesmaids. It’s a perfect storm.

However, [REC]3: Génesis bravely kicks away the crutches of the only element that truly set the series apart from the rest of the zombie sub-genre – its found footage lynchpin. After a twenty minute cold open where good use is made of the multitude of cameras documenting Koldo and Clara’s big day, it’s all dropped. The aspect ratio shifts and we’re into classic narrative cinema territory.

As things kick off and zombie hordes cut a swath through the turquoise and fuchsia festivities, it becomes clear that this is far more full-on than its predecessors. All sense of restraint is dropped along with the documentary aesthetic. It still takes the opportunity to play with form a bit but the realist elements that were so strong before are dropped in favour of striking iconography. It plays more like a parody than the relatively grounded first two.

The thing is, all this change in style and subversion of expectations is to the film’s credit. As if the filmmakers who once rode this zeitgeist realise, like most of their audience, that it was time to get off and change-up. They’ve done found footage and this is their chance to possibly end the series on a grander canvas.

The blackly comic humour redolent of many zombie films, including previous [REC]s, is still there. It doesn’t think twice about dropping names like Dziga Vertov and Jean Renoir to a horror crowd because this is a film that exudes confidence. There’s a biting satirical edge that has time to riff on copyright infringement and music royalties while limbs are torn off and viscera is strewn.

The innovative, playful mythos of this world's zombies is nicely carried over and expanded upon from [REC]2. The explanation for them is a nice idea and it’s good to see it taken to its fitting conclusion.

The two leads, Leticia Dolera and Diego Martin, are captivating as these two doomed lovers who just want to see through the remainder of their wedding day together. Dolera looks like a Tim Burton drawing made flesh and assumes a role as one of contemporary horror’s most striking protagonists; not least when hacking apart her bloodied bridal gown with a chainsaw to reveal a blood red garter underneath.

For all the reasons it’s massively enjoyable to watch, it’s also bit on the slight side and lacking in real tension as a result of the outré tone. That’s close to a cardinal sin in horror terms but when it keeps up the frenetic pace as it does for its all-too-brief (but not more so than the other two) running time, there’s little room to notice what’s not there above what is.


Saturday, 7 January 2012

Top Ten Films Of 2011

Final tally for the year’s film viewing was 501, of which 418 (83%) were films I’d never seen before.

This list represents the best new films I saw throughout the year and includes feature films that received a UK release between January 1st and December 31st 2011, on any format, but doesn’t include festival showings.

It also includes the 11-20 spots, just for context:

20. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (David Fincher)
19. Animal Kingdom (David Michôd)
18. Beginners (Mike Mills)
17. I Saw The Devil (Jee-woon Kim)
16. Blue Valentine (Derek Cianfrance)
15. Cell 211 (Daniel Monzón)
14. Cave Of Forgotten Dreams (Werner Herzog)
13. The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius)
12. A Separation (Asghar Farhadi)
11. NEDS (Peter Mullan)

Wuthering Heights (Andrea Arnold)

A list of adjectives I'd use in describing Andrea Arnold’s take on Emily Brontë’s frequently-adapted novel: vital, visceral, modern, immediate, sensual, charged. There’s a raw energy to her earthy take which retains the gist but takes many artistically justified liberties. Boxed-in by the film’s intensely focused 4:3 frame, there’s a real sense of being part of Heathcliff and Cathy’s world, which makes it all the more touching when their close bond begins to fray.

Rango (Gore Verbinski)

What’s been missing from Hollywood studio animation lately? A peyote-fried, psychedelic Western homage populated by a cast of freakish animals. The cry of ‘it’s not really for kids’ has never been as apt as it is applied to this. When it isn’t spending its time hat-tipping Hunter S. Thompson it’s revelling in grisly, morbid detail and following a chameleon on an existential journey. This is as close as Johnny Depp will get to a spiritual sequel to Dead Man.

Tyrannosaur (Paddy Considine)

This tale of two lost souls both troubled by violence, as either aggressor or victim, is an assured feature directorial debut from Paddy Considine. It’s often bleak and troubling but absolutely never treats its characters with anything less than utmost humanity. It’s an exploration of what drives our baser emotions. Peter Mullan imbues Joseph with a fragility at odds with his threatening veneer while Olivia Colman gives an understated tragic performance that completely belies her comedy roots. This is heartbreaking, but ultimately beautiful, stuff.

Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky)

Darren Aronofsky continues apace with making each subsequent film a markedly different beast from that which came before with this masterful psychosexual thriller. Taking elements of The Red Shoes and mashing them with giallo tropes and Cronenbergian body horror, it creates a dark melodrama about identity and repression. A film ostensibly about ballet becomes a hysterical, shrieking nightmare through the use of an intricate soundscape, cunningly engineered jolts and horror prosthetics. It’s not subtle but it’s not required to be.

True Grit (Joel & Ethan Coen)

The Coen Brothers inject more grit into True Grit with this retelling of the grizzled tale which is not without the occasional flash of their usual oddities (witnessed most prominently in the striking image of what appears to be a bear on horseback appearing from the distance). For the most part this plays out as a surprisingly straight-up Western with Jeff Bridges’ shambling souse, Marshal Rooster Cogburn, rallying brilliantly against the impressive Hailee Steinfeld’s buttoned-up, determined child. Its elegiac qualities make way for elements of mismatched buddy comedy as the tone subtly shifts against the backdrop of the beautifully captured landscapes.

Trollhunter (André Øvredal)

From the simple premise of following the jaded employee of a bureaucratic agency dealing with Norway's native troll populace, there's a lot wrung from this mock-doc which proves found footage is not a spent force. Troll mythology is scientifically explained with a straight face but there's still room for sly allusions to the fairytales of yore and perfectly-pitched comic moments. Full of suspenseful vignettes, subtle effects and just the right amount of gore, it's a refreshing European take on the well-worn monster movie genre.

Melancholia (Lars von Trier)

The film starts with a rupturing bass rumble, which signifies Earth's atmosphere is being invaded by the eponymous celestial body, and immediately sets you ill at ease. A constant disquieting thrum pervades for the duration as the focus shifts from galactic affairs to a focused tale of depression as a family disintegrates at a country house wedding. Kirsten Dunst captivates as the morose Justine and the cinematography, framing moments like a Pre-Raphaelite painting, is astounding. This is a riveting human drama from Lars von Trier which also happens to feature the annihilation of Earth.

Bridesmaids (Paul Feig)

More than just another ensemble comedy, this is an acute deconstruction of the nature of friendships and a treatise on faded glory and life expectations. It's also an ensemble comedy. Not enough for you? It manages to find time to fit in one of the most charming romantic subplots of recent years, and features a grown woman punching her way through a 4 foot cookie.

Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn)

Without doubt this is the year's classiest actioner, which coolly underplays the little action it does have with restraint. It's a throwback in electric pink, underneath a neon glow and shot through with flashes of burnished gold. Ryan Gosling's stoic turn as he tentatively couples with Carey Mulligan means this is really a brutal, damaged love story as much as it is a stylishly rendered tale of botched robberies and vengeful mafiosi.

We Need To Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsay)

This is powerful, stunning filmmaking and a welcome return from Lynne Ramsay after nine years in the wilderness. The back-and-forth structure and recurring symbolism intensifies the psychological torment and leaves your guts torn out by the time the film’s lynchpin action finally occurs. Tilda Swinton has never been better and through both her and Ezra Miller’s performances, difficult questions are left untainted by easy answers. This is a confident mixture of heart-wrenching and horrifying, which impresses on every front.


The worst films of the year list is again dominated by comedies. The notable trend among those in 2011 appears to be raunchy romcoms that want to have the appeal of their sweeter counterparts but also want to be able to say “vagina” every 4.67 words.

Here's the bottom ten:

10. Friend With Benefits (Will Gluck)

By the time an Alzheimer’s subplot rears its ugly head, this vapid mess will already have offended every sensibility.

9. Colombiana (Olivier Megaton)

A few impressive moments creep through the fug of all-consuming stupidity and ineptly-handled action but not enough to redeem it.

8. How Do You Know (James L. Brooks)

A string of contrivances held together by navel-gazing, from a cast and director who really should know better. It can’t even be bothered to punctuate its title.

7. What's Your Number? (Mark Mylod)

One. Out of five.

6. Zookeeper (Frank Coraci)

What’s the only thing worse than an Adam Sandler vehicle? An Adam Sandler stooge vehicle. With talking animals.

5. Sleeping Beauty (Julia Leigh)

Nihilistic erotic drama that’s neither erotic nor dramatic. The film itself is as blank and empty as its characters.

4. Anuvahood (Adam Deacon, Daniel Toland)

Woefully misjudged knockabout comedy that veers wildly between wacky romp and scenes of brutal violence.

3. No Strings Attached (Ivan Reitman)

Friends With Benefits without the relative charms of Justin Timberlake or Mila Kunis. Ashton Kutcher and Natalie Portman exchange fluids but not chemistry.

2. Just Go With It (Dennis Dugan)

Just don’t. Middle-aged Adam Sandler wank fantasy where he splurges hundreds of thousands of dollars on duping a model into having sex with him.

1. The Change-Up (David Dobkin)

A morally and emotionally bankrupt, misogynist body-swap comedy. High concept; lowest common denominator.